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Asifa's rape and killing: The girl, her family and the accused

Asifa's rape and killing: The girl, her family and the accused
From Al Jazeera - April 16, 2018

Udhampur, Indian-administered Kashmir - The time was ripe to kill the girl, Sanji Ram told his juvenile nephew on a cold January evening.

The ritual had been performed and Asifa, an eight-year-old Muslim nomad girl, was taken to a culvert in front of a temple where she had been kept in captivity, and sedated, for four days in Rasana village of Kathua district in Indian-administered Kashmir.

But, before she would be strangulated and her head was hit twice with a stone "to make sure" she is dead, Deepak Khajuria, a special police officer, made a demand. He wanted to rape the girl before she was killed.

"As such", the police investigation noted, "once again the little girl was gang raped" by the accused police officer and then by the juvenile.

For the next three months, the rape and murder of Asifa seemed to be another case of sexual violence that is rampant in India but rare in Indian administered Kashmir, till the barbarity and the plot came to fore in the 16-page charge sheet presented by the crime branch - a local investigating agency.

The investigation revealed that the rape and murder were systematic, preplanned and rooted in religious hatred harboured by Sanji Ram, a Hindu, against the Muslim nomadic community of Bakarwals.

The nomad girl

Asifa, the nomad girl, loved to take horses for grazing to the forest near her home in Rasana, a quiet village in Kathua district of Indian-administered Kashmir.

The reason Asifa was picked as a target by Sanji Ram, who knew she "often comes to the forest", was simple; they wanted to drive the Muslim community out, according to the investigation.

In captivity inside a temple, Asifa was drugged and raped. The police in its investigation report described Asifa as an "innocent budding flower, a child of only eight years of age, who being a small kid became a soft target".

The crime, however, was rooted in a sinister conspiracy and Asifa's rape and murder were the means to an end - create fear among the Muslim nomadic community, Bakarwal, and force them to leave.

Rafeeza Bano, Asifa's 55-year-old mother, recalls the horror she saw on her dead daughter's body. "There were scars on her cheeks," she told Al Jazeera at their camp in Udhampur.

"Her lips had turned black, and her eyes had bulged out. It was a scary scene for a mother to see," she said. "She was my youngest child. It was horrific. She had faced a lot of barbarity."

The mother now fears for her surviving daughter, aged 13. "They did this with an eight-year-old girl, imagine what they can do with a 13-year-old," she said.

The Family

The tough life of a nomad had cast its shadow on Mohammad Akhtar and he looks older than his 45 years. He now lives with a more damning burden - the elusive justice for his daughter, Asifa.

On a hill in Udhampur district, nearly 150km north of Rasana, the family camps under the open sky with their herd of goats and horses. The journey is part of the annual migration of this nomadic community in search of grazing pastures.

"Her face was full of scratches and bites," Akhtar told Al Jazeera, describing the marks of torment on Asifa. "I never knew they will do this with the child, her milk teeth were yet to fall out," he said.

Akhtar is Asifa's biological father as the girl was raised by her maternal uncle, Mohammad Yusuf, who adopted her when she was a toddler after he lost his three children in an accident.

"After she was killed it created more fear than before. We now take our daughters along all the time, all in our community became protective towards our daughters," he said.

Akhtar said the family also faced threats in the aftermath of the incident.

"They said if our men are given the death sentence, we will kill you one by one. After the dead body was found, Hindu people came to us and threatened us," he said.

Gazala, Asifa's aunt who lived in nearby Samba district, says she now fears for her two daughters aged nine and four. "I fear for them. They would run after the horses, they were free to play but now we are very worried. We had not seen anything as gruesome," she said.

Asifa's rape and murder have forced an early migration of Bakarwals, a tribe with a rudimentary lifestyle that earns a living out of herding goats, sheep and horses to mountainous pastures. The incident instilled fear in their community, which is unprotected during its lengthy migratory journeys.

The accused

The Fear

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